part of

(Chapter 1 section A)

For the full contents of "Authority in Feminist Biblical Interpretation" by Beryl Donnan, and other online sections see here.

esf1AThe question of biblical interpretation is of fundamental importance to those feminists who wish to remain members of a Christian faith community.  They are confronted as part of their lived experience with proclamation and exposition of patriarchal texts which are claimed as authoritative, as "Word of God" or "divine revelation".  But the tension this creates is intensified for those who take the broader view of political implication and recognise the use and abuse of the Bible in the shaping of patriarchal society as a whole.

Feminist attempts to interpret the biblical materials by techniques such as looking at positive texts about women to counteract those against, or looking within the Bible generally for a critique of patriarchy, and looking for connections between the texts about ancient women and the circumstances of modern women living in patriarchal cultures[1], all come up against the question of how the ancient patriarchal and androcentric texts can be authoritative for the lived experience of women today.

Carolyn Osiek has described and evaluated five "hermeneutical alternatives" with which feminist biblical scholars have responded to the question of interpreting the biblical texts in the light of their experience, especially feminist experience.  The "rejectionist" position is important for feminist theology, not least because of the high profile of an exponent like Mary Daly.  But by definition it moves feminist theology out of the sphere of Christian theology because it perceives the Bible and the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition as unredeemable because of its inherent patriarchalism.[2]  As it rejects biblical roots it does not face the problem of coming to terms with hermeneutical difficulties.  However it should be noted that this is a position usually reached by a painful process of movement away from the tradition and is the result of an experience of struggle with it.  Thus it is a valuable dimension of women's experience.

Osiek points to the validity of the experience of those who take the opposite "loyalist" position where "the biblical witness as revelation has an independent status which need not be vindicated by human authority" and "the Bible precisely as Word of God cannot by nature be oppressive".[3]  While the importance and significant following of these two alternative positions is recognised they will not be treated in any further detail because essentially for opposite reasons they do not need to wrestle with the question of the authority of the patriarchal biblical text.

Avoidance of the problem of authority is also a characteristic of the "sublimationist" hermeneutic, although this is not a typical perspective for biblical scholars.[4]  Here the response to problems of patriarchy and androcentrism in the Bible is to "transcend the conflict"[5] by an idealistic glorification of the otherness of the feminine and female symbolism.  While presumably providing a satisfying experience for the more "romantic" feminist it shares with the rejectionist hermeneutic a position of exclusivism and separatism, and with the loyalist hermeneutic an "innocence" about socio-political realities and the consequences of such a stance.

The remaining two hermeneutical positions, the "revisionist" and the "liberationist", both confront the problem of the authority of the received text.  Neither is willing to abandon their historical roots.  While the revisionist position is essentially "rehabilitation of the tradition through reform"[6] it is the intention of the liberationist perspective to "transform" the tradition.  Much of the groundwork in detailed feminist biblical interpretation has been done by revisionists, Phyllis Trible being one of the most notable.  They have produced historical and literary re-examinations, reconstructions and "readings between the lines".  But the "lack of political strategy" which results in no direct attack on the "system that has caused the suppression of the very evidence which it so painstakingly reconstructs"[7] is in sharp contrast to the advocacy stance of the liberationist hermeneutic.

This position currently attracts most attention because its better known exponents, Ruether and Schüssler Fiorenza in particular, present total direct challenges to the revelatory and authoritative character of the received biblical tradition while refusing to relinquish it.  The feminist liberationist position is in this respect like other liberation theologies.  However its distinctive appeal is to women's collective experience as a source of authority.  In the case of Schüssler Fiorenza this is taken to the conclusion of asserting "women-church" as the norm of authority for interpreting the Bible and Pamela Dickey-Young has dubbed this the "new magisterium".[8]

Because of the clarity of this challenge to the traditional concepts of authority, the defining influence of Fiorenza's work on other feminists and the fact that it has commanded serious critical attention in traditional "malestream" circles, this dissertation will examine her work in more detail as a means of addressing the issue of authority in feminist biblical interpretation.  A brief survey of her work will be followed by an outline of the remaining chapters identifying some critical issues which arise when her work is considered from the perspective of authority.

[1]  K.D. Sakenfeld, 'Feminist Uses of Biblical Materials', in L.M. Russell editor, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985, p56

[2]  C. Osiek, 'The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives', in A.Y. Collins editor, Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, Scholars Press, Chico, CA, p 98

[3]  Osiek, The Feminist and the Bible, p 99

[4]  C. V. Camp, 'Feminist Theological Hermeneutics: Canon and Christian Identity', in E. Schüssler Fiorenza editor, Searching the Scriptures Vol 1, S.C.M. Press, London. 1994, p 157

[5]  Osiek, The Feminist and the Bible, p 102

[6]  Osiek, The Feminist and the Bible, p 101

[7]  Osiek, The Feminist and the Bible, p 101

[8]  P. Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology/Christian Theology, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1990, p 24

Back to top